Worthy of Being Fed by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity (Cover Image) Inspired by Isaiah 55:1-9 | Acrylic on raw canvas with digital drawing
Pity the poor fig tree in Jesus’ parable, stuck in the middle of a vineyard. Usually we don’t pity the fig trees that don’t perform well in Jesus’ parables, but I hope to change your mind. If we look carefully at the fig tree situation in our reading today, I believe, it truly is tragic.
This poor fig tree was planted than neglected for three years, placed in an environment that was not made for it, not given the resources necessary to succeed or thrive, and then judged on criteria that it wouldn’t have ever been able to meet in a set of conditions that were not in its control.
Indeed, perhaps we have all felt like that fig tree in one way or another, judged to a set of standards we might never be able to achieve, feeling alienated from those around us, threatened by violence while trying to simply survive.
I would also say that even if we do not feel like the fig tree right now, we ignore it’s story at our own peril, for it has much to teach us.
Pity the fig tree.
The tough thing about parables like this one is that they are stories. Sometimes what they teach is unclear. Often they have multiple lessons, depending on how we interpret them. Sometimes they raise more questions than they do answers.
The good thing about parables as stories is that as we change, as we mature, the lessons we draw from them might change. The stories in our Bible offer different lessons to us depending on where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in our society.
From this parable, of the fig tree in the vineyard, I believe the questions it raises and the lessons that it has to teach us are to reconsider some of the ways that our society tells us about who is valued and worthy of care, love, and the ability to thrive.
My first question is, “What is the fig tree doing in the Vineyard?” Vineyards are prime commercial property, typically very well ordered. If you’ve been to one you know that vineyards are usually monoculture agricultural land- that is, there’s one crop grown on a vineyard- wine grapes.
The one exception to this is roses; the reason for this is practical, as roses get the same fungal diseases and show signs of them sooner. Thus, when the roses get sick, the grapevines can be treated preventatively, and the crop isn’t affected.
At least as I’ve been able to find, the fig tree serves no commercial purpose in the vineyard.
Yet it appears that someone- either the gardener or the owner of the vineyard, put it there on purpose.
Let’s keep that question in mind as we think about the parable further; why is that fig tree in the vineyard?
But let’s continue on toward a second question, “What good is the fig tree?”
The owner clearly wants figs from it, but the tree has not produced any. To the owner, the tree is no good, less than worthless, as it takes up valuable land.
But I say to you there are two lessons, at least, that we might gather about the tree’s value that .
The first is that the tree, even without fruit, is producing plenty of things of value! Depending on how big it is and where it is, it might be producing oxygen, nutrients for the soil, and shade.
I hope I don’t need to say much about how much having oxygen in our air is vital.
Speaking of shade, Miami PACT is an organization that our church is a part of, and one of the issues that they’ll be demanding action on at their March 28th Nehemiah action meeting next Monday is on planting more shade trees here in Miami.
If you’ve noticed that Miami has gotten hotter in recent years, you’re right. Not only is global climate change effecting us, most of Miami is a low density concrete jungle. This turns Miami into what is called a heat island, where more of the sun’s heat is absorbed by concrete and asphalt, heating less shaded areas of a city up to 27 degrees more on a hot summer day than a nearby rural area. Whereas shaded or moist ground areas stay close to air temperature, pavement can be 50 to 90 degrees warmer than the air around it.
If all a tree offered was shade that would be enough produced for it to be valuable in my eyes.
But I think we ought to go one step further, and reconsider the relationship between value, worth, and productivity.
Because placing the onus for our worth and dignity on our productive capacity is a seductive but deadly trap.
I say seductive because it’s something many of us do. At a party or even here at the social hour after church, as we’re trying to get to know someone, what is often the second question we ask after a name?
“What do you do?”, And we often don’t mean what art projects are you in to. We want to know your professional job status, so we can put people into a little box and judge them on it. I try not to use this question when I can; I ask “How do you spend your time?” which invites people to talk about the things they want to- either their job or their hobbies, their kids, or anything else. If this seems like a small thing, perhaps in that case it is, but it also has real impact on how we have structured our society.
I used the word deadly to describe this system because I meant that this system killed people. Not only in the past, where disabled or strange looking babies were put on a mountainside to die, because they would cost too much and not be able to help out on the farm, but today, when people have to make choices between medicine, food, and housing costs. The cost of Insulin, needed to treat diabetes, rose 50% between 2014 and 2019. The price of rent in Miami is up something like 30-40% this year alone.
Perhaps, as the poet writes on the back of our bulletin, our worth and our value is not based on our ability to produce and make things, but on the fact of our existence.
That fig tree is not justified in its existence by the fact that it should produce figs, or even oxygen or shade. It’s simple existence is enough.
Why is that fig tree in the vineyard?
Perhaps the real purpose of the fig tree is to just to be a fig tree. That’s enough.
Too many of us are thrust into alien situations where we are judged by standards that we can never meet, are not given the necessary resources to thrive, where the good we do is ignored, and then are threatened for not meeting the arbitrary standards thrust upon us without our consent. Too many of us are judged not by the content of our character but the amount of money we make.
This is not God’s plan for us. Read the beginning of our Isaiah passage; Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
There is a world that we can build with God’s help, where even if we don’t get all our wants, we do get our needs met. Where there is abundance beyond the logic and reason of pure economic utility. God has given us many signs that this is the world we’re called to; we ignore them at our peril.
So let us build that world; where fig trees and people are given what we need to thrive. Where fig trees and people are cherished for our simple existence, not because of how much we can produce in a quarter. Where the specter of death does not chase those who cannot produce.
Let us build the feast together, in the shade of the fig tree.